The Graduate of the Future: Is Online Education Taking Over?

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The rising popularity of higher-education seeking individuals enrolling into online post-secondary degree programs and online courses brings about a significant question regarding the future of education: Can an Internet-administered education displace the established brick-and-mortar mode of instruction that has been the institutional paradigm for centuries?  With even online graduate schools now being available for aspiring graduate students, will further technological advancements only make online programs more robust and emulative of a real classroom?  Will it render the classroom useless?

While there are many advantages to getting a degree online, there remain many benefits to getting one’s degree at a brick-and-mortar institution, which suggests that online education’s growth, while significantly, is hindered from transforming the traditional paradigm any time soon. Still, changes are in store for how post-secondary education is administered; the traditional education paradigm is facing a significant period of change—the Internet has made higher education available in ways that it has never been before. As we move further into the technological age, online degrees are likely to become more acceptable and graduates of online programs will be more marketable as they grow in numbers and become more globally dispersed.

But this growth is met with some challenges.  According to onlineschools.org, “Studies show that when companies attempt to fill management or entry-level positions in accounting, business, engineering, and information technology, 96 percent will choose the candidate with the traditional degree.” Although the number of online degree holders are growing, online degrees are still viewed with caution as they are “still relatively uncommon.” BrainTrack.com says that there are about two million students currently enrolled in online schools; there are 15 million students altogether at postsecondary institutions. The number of online students will only increase.

The grounds on which online education can best compete with traditional education is cost.  Tuition, board, and fees at an Ivy league school have climbed to over $50,000 per academic year, but some online education programs can be attained for less than $10,000. What is the trade-off? Businessweek says the trade-off is between “fidelity” and “convenience.” Fidelity is “the total experience of something”—like the bragging rights you get from seeing your favorite rock group in concert. Lower cost and the ability to work at home make the online experience more convenient, but the on-campus experience of an accredited college you have paid a great deal of money for is all-encompassing (high-fidelity), and currently the result is more likely to be a respected undergraduate degree.

The Businessweek article goes on to suggest that there is currently a high-convenience equivalent of the high-fidelity degree. “Currently there exists no higher-education version of MP3 music files—no way to get a “good-enough” BA or master’s degree that’s accepted by professional managers, yet obtain it in a way that’s cheap, easy, and convenient.” But this is likely to change.

According to Reuters, the public may soon see a new player in the online education space that may be able to address both the convenience and fidelity concerns by combining global accessibility and high-quality teaching:  A Silicon Valley CEO has stated interest in contributing $25 million to start a four-year online college to rival Harvard, and he is not the only entrepreneur with this type of project in mind. Another entrepreneur, Ben Nelson, wants to attract high-achieving students from around the globe to his Minerva Project, a for-profit undergraduate institution, which will offer rigorous courses taught by academic heavyweights. He plans to charge the first entering class (Fall, 2014) less than $20,000 in tuition.

If the perceived value of the online degree is the biggest setback for the growth of online schools, making them more rigorous and competitive will work towards not only making them a comparable alternative to traditionally-administered but also start to dispel any negative perceptions regarding their quality of education.  While online schools are undoubtedly beginning to become a more legitimate means of receiving an education, they are quite a ways from displacing and taking over traditionally-administered schools as the status quo.  But as progress is being made and technology is being advanced, it could soon become a very formidable opponent.

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